What’s Wilderness Worth?

A synthesis of the economic values of wilderness areas

Wilderness areas such as the Linville Gorge Wilderness area in the Pisgah National Forest, provide habitat for hundreds of plant and animal species, plus recreation opportunities for people. Photo by Ken Thomas, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Wilderness areas, such as the Linville Gorge Wilderness area in the Pisgah National Forest, provide habitat for hundreds of plant and animal species, plus recreation opportunities for people. Photo by Ken Thomas, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 1964, Congress protected areas where, according to the Wilderness Act, “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Wilderness areas now cover approximately 5 percent of the United States – over 100 million acres.

While the ecological and aesthetic value of these lands is apparent, their economic value is less intuitive. In a review article published in the Journal of Forestry, U.S. Forest Service scientist Thomas Holmes and his colleagues describe the concepts and tools used to analyze the economic value of wilderness. The scientists considered historical studies to identify trends in the use and economic value of wilderness areas as well as the economic impacts that wilderness areas have on gateway communities.

“Once resources are extracted from a wilderness area, wilderness character is irreversibly changed and can never be reproduced,” says Holmes. “This is why it is important to consider the trade-offs inherent in developing wild areas.  People are often surprised to learn that the economic value of protecting wilderness areas can exceed the economic value of developing those areas.”

Economists have proposed that people generally become willing to pay more for wilderness protection and use as their income and education increases. Combined with the increasing scarcity of wild lands relative to other land uses, economists have argued that wilderness values will trend upwards as economies develop.  Holmes and his colleagues reviewed the economic literature to discern trends in the economic value of wilderness. “Our review suggests that wilderness areas are becoming increasingly valuable to society over time,” says Holmes.

The authors also noted that there are large gaps in the literature – and much of the existing literature is dated. However, improved systems for collecting and archiving wilderness-related data, such as the US Forest Service Visitor Use Permit System and National Visitor Use Monitoring System, are making more rigorous, updated studies of the economic values of wilderness possible.

Holmes and his colleagues summarized several types of wilderness value, including the value of wilderness recreation, the value of having the option to visit a wilderness area in the future, the value of passing wilderness landscapes on to future generations, and the value of knowing wilderness areas exist – even if one never plans to visit them. The scientists also studied how wilderness areas increase the value of nearby private property. “Many people want to live in residential communities near wilderness,” says Holmes. “A growing concern in some areas is how the subsequent increase in property values affects the existing community.”

“Our synthesis of wilderness economics literature aims to discern underlying trends in wilderness use, value, and economic impacts,” says Holmes. “Ultimately, this synthesis could inform decision makers while guiding future research on the value of wilderness.”

Read the full text of the article.

For more information, email Thomas Holmes at tholmes@fs.fed.us

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